Back to the table of contents




The Boom of Hungarian Literature in Monasteries
between 1470 and 1530

The two literary phenomena of the second half of the 15th century were the adoption of Latin humanist literature and the development of Hungarian literature in monasteries. This latter one was closely related to Latin church literature. Its literary significance is not in its originality, content or independent aesthetic values, but rather in the effort the translators made, which encouraged the birth of a written Hungarian literary language within a couple of decades. At the same time the opportunity to learn to read and write became available for those who could not speak Latin. This whole process was encouraged by the demands of a rather small social group: nuns who did not speak Latin, lay brethren who did the manual work and some keen secular persons.

Before the middle of the 15th century only very few Hungarian codices were made. Religious education, that is preaching was in the mother tongue from the beginning, law cases were tried in Hungarian, too, but everything was recorded in Latin. Literate persons spoke Latin, too, but the believers and clients could not even read Hungarian. Translations were made by word of mouth, so the language slowly developed and was sufficient to express abstract theological ideas as well as juridistic ones. The direct influence of Latin grammar was very strong as Latin texts were translated in writing word by word. The translation of the Francis legend made around 1370 (Jókai codex, 1440) shows the difficulties: the Hungarian text is meaningless at several places due to the direct use of foreign grammatical structures, which do not exist in Hungarian.

The Hungarian Francis legend might have been translated for Franciscan monks whose Latin was very poor. The Bible translation, the so-called Hussite Bible (Vienna-, Munich-, Apor codex) was made in the first third of the 15th century, and its origin is debated. No other Hungarian codices are known from this period, but there might not have been more than a dozen in any case. However, 40 codices survived from 1470-1530, most of them being copies. The preserved copies refer back to 200-300 codices, which were destroyed, and this number shows the increased demand for literature in the mother tongue. From this time on codices were made continuously, for a certain social group about a certain topic.

The quick development of Hungarian literature in monasteries was helped along by numerous factors. Several reforms were introduced during the 15th century to reconstruct the strict principles of cloisters, which had become slack by this time. For example, a better quality of education was provided, where Latin and literacy were compulsory. Nuns were supervised by 'reformed' monks, who checked that principles were being observed in the nunnery, and they also mediated in the development of a new, personal religious devotion (devotio moderna). Nuns who did not speak Latin were not satisfied with common Latin offices, the text of which they did not understand, and they wanted to pray and meditate independently. The texts for these prayers were chosen and translated by monks, who learnt to read - some of them even to write - in Hungarian.

The Characteristic Features of Hungarian Literature in the Monasteries

The content of the Hungarian texts was defined by the spiritual needs of the new readers. This was religious literature which encouraged spiritual growth, education and devotion. These were not original works of art, but translations of Latin liturgical works. Hard-working translators and copiers made these texts available in Hungarian throughout a period of 50-60 years. Although the Latin sources had already appeared in print by this time, hand-written Hungarian codices were always unique, individual collections. A lot of them had a mixed content. Some of the codices served the whole monastic communities, and were read during meals or at the chapter room in the evenings. Others were made for personal use, and private reading.

The Monastic Background of the Codices

The majority (33 pieces) of the codices, which are also linguistic memories as well, were the property of the two begging orders: the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The centre of the Hungarian Dominican order was the famous St Michael monastery, including the college of the order. The nunnery on the Island of Rabbits (Margaret Island) might have been reformed from here, too. In the name of the reforms Paul Váci had St Augustine's regulations and the resolutions of the order translated for the nuns in 1474. The fragments of the original manuscript of Paul Váci are called the Birk codex. Under the supervision of the Dominican monks the nunnery on the island became the main centre of collecting and copying Hungarian codices. Opposite the nunnery, on the other bank of the river Danube, was the nunnery of the Óbuda Clarissans. This was supervised by a close cloister of the Marian Franciscans, who also provided Hungarian readings. Clarissan and Dominican nuns often lent codices to each other for copying.

The Paulians of Nagyvázsony gave away two prayer books to the wife of their founder, Mrs Kinizsi, Benigna Magyar. One of these was the richly decorated Festetics codex, made in 1493, the other was the Czech codex from 1513. The Peer codex, which probably contained prayers, also originated from the cloister of Vázsony. It was made for a secular customer. The Premontrean Lányi codex (1518-1519) is a book of instructions, which describes the order of Latin services in Hungarian. It is the only book of instructions in the mother tongue in Europe. The Carthausian monastery of Lövöld was a very special one. The Érdy codex was made here. The Carthausians did not have a nunnery, and did not deal with the spiritual care of secular persons, either, but the first significant codex writer originated from here. He compiled a collection of preachings and legends and for a whole year ignored the expectations of the order.

The Translators

The translators of codices were usually ordinary monks, about whom we know very little. According to the customs of the Middle Ages they did not even record their own names. Paul Váci, Magister of theology, was identified only later as the translator of the Birk codex, based on references in the history of the order. The other translator who is known by name is Andrew Nyújtódi from the Székelyföld. He was a Franciscan monk, who translated the Book of Judith from the Bible into Hungarian for his nun-sister who was also called Judith. Nyújtódi named himself in the dedication to his sister. The Székelyudvarhely codex was his work. The unknown Bible translator of the Jordánszky codex used a personal tone when claiming that he did not understand a part of the second book of Moses, and at the end of the fifth book he was released and asked the readers to pray for him.

The Only Conscious Author, the Carthausian Anonym

The above mentioned Érdy codex was not the mechanic translation of a completed Latin work, but a collection for the Hungarian readers. It is not only the planned structure of the text which refers to the consciousness of the author, but also a longer and a shorter Hungarian preface. In the Latin prologue the author declared for whom and why he compiled his work, and besides this he provides useful information about himself, although he did not mention his own name. The author known in the history of literary historiography as the Carthausian Anonym wanted to provide useful readings for nuns and lay brethren of different orders in spite of the threatening Lutheran heresy. He translated the preachings and relevant part of the gospels for all the feasts and celebrations, then he added long commentaries to these, and provided the legend of the given saint at the celebrations of saints. The final version of this work was the Érdy codex (1526).

The Copiers

Copiers were often monks, but there were some nuns as well, who could not only read but also write. The most famous one was Lea Ráskai, who copied five codices (Margaret legend 1510, Book of Parables 1510, Cornides codex 1514-1519, St Dominique's life 1517, Horváth codex 1522). She was a nun from the Island of Rabbits, who was not just a simple copier of books, but often made comments on the text, and in her clauses she referred to the local or national event of the given year. She may also have been the librarian of the nunnery. Martha Sövényházi also lived in the nunnery. Her work was St Katharine of Alexandria's Legend in Verse in the Érsekújvár codex. Nuns usually put down words of emotion next to the text being copied, but sometimes they made comments about their headache, too.

Codices, Genres, Works

The scientific value of the codices, which are also linguistic sources, was recognised only at the beginning of the last century, at which time they were regularly collected and published. They usually got their names at that time, too, some of them from the place where they were kept (Debrecen codex), some from their content (Dominican codex), some from their owners (Lobkowitz codex) or the person who discovered them (Czech codex). Names were needed because they did not have titles - in accordance with medieval customs -, and it would have been impossible to identify them according to their genres only (such as prayer books), as there were several codices with similar contents. In addition to this, the majority of the manuscripts have a mixed content. For example, the long Érsekújvár codex contains parts of the gospels, sermons, short parables and legends as well as essays. Texts of different genres are connected by the fact that they were all supposed to be read out. However, different genres in a work could have been organised as a whole, such as in the above mentioned Érdy codex.

About Bible Translations

Readings from the Bible could be found in different versions. A systematic, but not complete Bible translation was the Hussite Bible from the previous historic period. Another systematic translation, although the translation of the Old Testament was rather poor, was the Jordánszky codex (1516-1519). Monks read the Bible to the end in Latin once a year as part of their evening office. There was no regular Bible reading in the mother tongue, and historic books were hardly ever used for private prayer. Pericope and psalm translations were more popular than continuous Bible translations. Pericopes are readings of the mass, the sermon and the gospel. Nuns regularly met these texts in Latin, and even though they knew the sermons and the stories from the preacher's interpretation, they must have been keen on listening to them again in Hungarian in the chapter room.

Psalms were recited in Latin weekly, without being understood. Translations of psalms helped people to understand the texts already known by heart, and enter into the spirit of these wonderful prayers. We can find the translations of 150 psalms and the relevant breviary psalms and Bible songs in the Döbrentei- (1508), Keszthely- (1522) and Kulcsár codex (1539), besides the Apor codex. A series of pericopes for the whole year can be found in the Érdy codex, Döbrentei codex and Székelyudvarhely codex. Sometimes a whole book of the Bible was translated independently, for example in the case of Judith Nyújtódi. Such translations are the Song of Songs from the Döbrentei codex, which was often used as a source of songs in the office and a very popular mystic text in the allegorical sense. In wedding songs groom means Christ and bride means the Church.


The sources of sermons in the mother tongue were Latin drafts of sermons including quotations from the Bible and references to highly respected church persons. Other things were added to these in live speech. In some of the codices we can find sermons (for example, in the Cornides codex, Érsekújvár codex and Horváth codex), but we also have a systematic collection of sermons combined with two legends (these are the Érdy codex and the Debrecen codex). These sermons were supposed to be read out, and as far as their roles were considered, they were quite close to the genre of essay (tracts) and reflection. The direct translations (such as the speech of Dorothy from Pelbárt Temesvári's sermon in the Cornides codex) are rather boring because of the fact that the sources are mainly drafts. However, the Carthausian Anonym - whose source was also Pelbárt Temesvári - compiled his speeches independently, as if they were a good reading.

Essays, Reflections

The most popular topics of essays (in the medieval sense of the word: messages, explanations) were, for example, monastic virtues and sins, the joys of Heaven and the tortures of Hell, the last Judgement, conscience and prayer. Their sources were the regulations of the great Franciscan theologian and superior, St Bonaventura (†1274) and his book On the Perfection of Life (Teleki-, Vitkovics-, Debrecen-, Lobkowitz- and Veszprémy codex), then one of the greatest mystic works, Thomas Kempis's Following Christ (Debrecen codex, Lobkowitz codex) and the German mystic, Henricus Suso's (†1471) dialogue between Wisdom and the Student, entitled Horologium sapientiae (Nagyszombat codex). The only tract, the original version of which was also made in Hungary, was the Booklet on the Honour of the Saint Apostles. This systematic booklet, full of deeds, contains a witty, lively debate among the apostles, as well as a quotation from Dante and the first Hungarian hexametric line.

Legends and Parables

The church was aware of the great value of the legend and miracles of the saints, for the way they influenced people. So they read out these legends in the offices not only at feasts, but also at the table during meals. The life of the founder of the order was an example for most of the members. Besides the Jókai codex, two other codices also contain St Francis's legend; these are the Simor codex, copied for the Óbuda Clarissans and the Virginia codex, made for the Dominican nuns of the Island of Rabbits. The Dominican Lea Ráskai copied the life and miracles of St Dominique in 1517 (Dominican codex). The example of the saint of the nunnery, Margaret, would have been even more direct and convincing for the nuns (Margaret legend).

Shorter legends appeared in several codices, but only in the Érdy codex and Debrecen codex do they follow one another in the order of the feasts of the saints. The sactorale of the Érdy codex refers to the whole year, and the main source of the legends is the most popular collection of legends of the Middle Ages, the Legenda aurea. However, the Carthausian Anonym used other sources as well as this one. He was the first to set down in writing the legends of Hungarian saints in Hungarian. The sactorale of the Debrecen codex is very rich, but unfortunately it is not complete. Most of the legends originate from the collection known as Catalogus Sanctorum. The most popular saint must have been the ascetic ideal, St Elek, whose legend has survived in six Hungarian codices. The parables (exemplum) were part of an independent genre. They are short, complete stories with a religious or moral message. They are often used in sermons and essays, as they help to make abstract ideas understandable, while entertaining the listeners or readers. A rich collection of parables is the Book of Parables.

Prayer Books

Unlike teaching genres, prayer is the direct method of reaching God. One can pray in a community (for example, during mass or offices, the recitation of psalms also belonging here) or personally. Prayer books were used for personal prayers. We have nine codices which contain prayers (the most significant ones are the Festetics-, Winkler-, Peer and Kriza codex). They were all made for private persons, some of whom were secular people. The Lord's Prayer, Ave Maria and the Credo are translations from the age of the Árpád dynasty, which were formed in live speech. The source of these thanksgiving, prayers to Christ, Mary and the Holy Ghost must have been a Latin prayer book, known as the Hortulus animae (The Garden of Soul) in most of the cases. The series of prayers attributed to the Swedish founder of the order, St Brigitte (†1344), containing 15 prayers, were translated from this book. This series of prayers survived in 8 different codices. Petrarc's seven repentance psalms (Festetics codex) are among the most beautiful prayers.

Church poetry - Legend in Verse

The translations of Latin hymns primarily helped to make the text comprehensible; they were not used for singing or liturgic purposes, but were read as prayers. Although the poem was separated from the melody, some translators tried to keep the number of syllables and the Latin forms of verse. The hymn translations of the Döbrentei- and Festetics codex are the best ones (for example, the hymn of St Ambrus: Veni Redemptor gentium - Come, Saviuor of Nations, or Ave maris stella - Ave Star of the Sea from an unknown author). Andrew Vásárhelyi's song for the Virgin Mary is not a translation, but an independent poem to be sung. The name of the poet can be read out from the first lines of the verses, and the date and place of the song (cantilena) was preserved in the last verse (Pest, 1508). The most beautiful example of Hungarian poetry from the end of the Middle Ages is St Katharine of Alexandria's legend in verse, which contains 4074 lines.

Secular Poetry

The St Ladislaus song was written in two languages, Hungarian and Latin. This poem is at the borderline of church and secular lyrics. The melody of this beautiful, well-structured song has also survived, and was composed in half ten lines. The author of the first Hungarian satire was Francis Apáti. In his Canilena he described Hungarian society before the defeat at Mohács, and his name was preserved in the first lines. The oldest example of Hungarian love poetry is a two-line fragment called the Love song of Sopron from 1490. The Körmöcbánya dance (1505) is a fragment of erotic mocking poetry. The poem entitled Szabács's Fight (1476) is a poem of 150 lines describing one of King Matthias's military victories, and has often been referred to as a forgery. The rhyming pattern is precise, and contains couplet rhymes, which are often quite perfect. By the end of the Middle Ages a new type of literary language was born, which was on the one hand capable of expressing abstract ideas, and on the other hand, it was composed of Hungarian lyrics independent of the Latin language.


Historical Background

The end of the Middle Ages in Hungary was the period when literary education was divided into two main parts: one of them was based on the language, the other one on concepts. Compared to previous periods, the number of Hungarian literary memories significantly increased, but Latin literature was dominant. The borderline of conceptions divided Latin literature from inside: on one hand there were works based on the characteristic features of the medieval Latin language and medieval ideas, but on the other hand humanist literature appeared, which followed antique Latin traditions concerning both the language and norms, and focused on the respect of the individual. Traditional middle Latin literature produced new genres, and the number of the representatives of these genres also increased. Juridistic and preaching literature flourished, and the significance of these genres was in the fact that they reflected and transferred the most important examples for Hungarian literacy and literary thinking.

In the last century of the Middle Ages it was not only the humanist ideas which brought about changes, but also the structure of society changed along with morality. The number of secular lawyers increased, who - as a group of literate people - encouraged the democratisation of literature. Religious forms were also transformed, individual religion gaining ever greater importance, and this fact had a major influence on the conceptual division of literature. So it can be said that humanism had its influence on two major levels, the more important one beyond doubt being the lower level. Thanks to the universities of Vienna and Krakow, more and more people were able to study, and at the end of the 15th century the majority of Hungarian students attended these two universities, which were within easy reach. With the increase in the productivity of paper mills, there were several secular persons, living in the countryside, who occasionally or as their occupation copied books, so that owning books became possible for more and more people. The first book sellers appeared in Buda, and in 1473 Andrew Hess founded a book print with the encouragement of Ladislaus Karai, the prior of Óbuda. Associations were formed, the aim of which was to educate, for example, the establishment of libraries. Such associations were the Deák Association in Igló ('Fraternitas Litteratorum') and the association of 24 priests of Szepes. In cities secular believers formed associations or religious unions around their altars, where they could study the values of ecclesiastic culture.


Due to the influence of humanism the great synthesis of earlier Hungarian chronicle literature was born at the end of the Middle Ages in Hungary, and this had a great impact on the up-coming generations. The author was John Thuróczy, the judge master of the High Court office, and he started his work to make up for the losses of earlier chronicles on the advise of his superior, Stephen Hásságyi. First, based on the poem of Laurence Monaci, he added Little Charles's story to written Hungarian historiography. Then he rewrote Hun history encouraged by his superior, Thomas Drági, who employed him as his personal judge master. He then started to rewrite and supplement a 14th-century chronicle, to which he added John Küküllei's work about King Louis I's life. Finally he recorded the period between the death of Little Charles and Matthias's accession to the throne, and he also made a draft of the historical events leading up to his own age. In 1488 he had his own works printed in two editions, and as an appendix he published Master Rogerius's historic work.

When John Thuróczy wrote his work 'The History of the Hungarians' (Chronica Hungarorum) he based the facts on his readings - as well as earlier Hungarian chronicles, of course. He used several sources, quoting from antique authors and modern ones, such as Pope Pius II. He knew and used the correspondence of his contemporaries, the charters issued at the chancellery and oral traditions as well. His chronicle is different from those of his predecessors. His common noble origins were quite influential in his theory of society, which can be read in the text of his work: he underlined the role of the common nobility in forming society (Kézai's Hun theory) and he was unconditionally loyal to the Hunyadi family. He thought King Matthias was the ideal principal, whose honourable predecessor was the figure of Attila, the king of the Huns. According to Thúróczy, history is not formed by God's will, but by fate and destiny. He thought his subject, the history of the Hungarian people, was more important than the history of ruling families, so he supplemented it with reports about the great deeds of noble lords, political debates and peasants' revolts. The easy style of his Latin language met the demands of contemporary expectations of the chancellery: he liked similes and descriptions of nature, episodes and the taste of court literature. His influence could be explained by his talent as a writer.

Church History

The characteristic feature of the historiography of the age was that with the strengthening of order-consciousness the monks' interest turned towards their past. In the Paulian order, which was found in Hungary, for example, Mark Dombrói had already started to keep the yearbook of the order and the examination of historical material in the second half of the 15th century. The results of these works were incorporated in the work of Gregor Gyöngyösi, the Paulian superior, and entitled 'The Biographies of Brethren', which was left uncompleted at the beginning of the 16th century. Later it was finished by a colleague of Gyöngyösi, Valentine Hadnagy, but the history of the Paulian order survived only in manuscripts, although it was quite significant in regard to both its length and quality. Gyöngyösi studied authentic sources, compiling a list of charters which were important for the history of the order. Observant Franciscan superior, Blasius Szalkai started to compile the chronicle of his order in the middle of the century, which was later continued by others, such as Osvat Laskai. In historiographic works there was a certain interest in the history of literature. For example, Blasius Szalkai dealt with the question of the translation of the Hussite Bible, and Gregor Gyöngyösi wrote about the poet, Adalbert Csanádi.


There were only a few memoirs in the Middle Ages. Among these the most significant one was Martin Leibici's work (he was born in the Szepesség and his mother tongue was German). He studied at the universities of Krakow and Vienna, after which he joined the Benedictine order in Subiaco during a pilgrimage to Rome, and then lived out his life in the Benedictine monastery of the Scottish in Vienna. Between 1446-1462 he was the abbot there, and died in 1464. He recorded the events of his life, of the monastery and his chosen homeland, Austria in the form of a fictitious dialogue. In the dialogue called 'Senatorium' he answered the questions of his youth (iuventis) as an old man (senex). He underlined his experiences in Hungary as a child. He gave a detailed picture of late medieval monastic culture in his memoirs. The author had close ties to the leading figure of the church reform movement Nicolas Cusanus, on whose encouragement he wrote some works about the reforms of the Benedictine order.

Juristic Literature and Literacy

The first scientific synthesis of customary law regulating the life of medieval Hungary was made by Stephen Werbőczy in the first decade of the 16th century. The author started to compile his material on the commission of king Ulaslo II, with the encouragement of the Hungarian nobility. He finished it in 1514 and entitled it 'The Triple Book of Hungarian Customary Law'. The Tripatrium is divided into a prologue and three big parts. The parts are divided into titles, the titles into paragraphs [sections]. In the prologue the author defines the basic conceptions of law, the differences between the technical expressions of customary and Roman law, the relationship of law and customary law. The first part describes the rights of possession for the nobility, the second part summarises civil procedure and the third part is about the juristic traditions in Transylvania and Slavonia. In the letter of dedication added to the work the author described the conditions of the birth of his work, its significance and his own juristic and scientific intentions in the style of Viennese humanists. His sources were the charters of the royal chancellery, earlier laws, records of sentences and living unwritten law.

Although the influence of Roman law can be felt in his work, its basis was the aspects of canon law. Werbőczy built up his work with the help of scholastic systematic methods, which were reflected in his language. Even though he denies the independence of his work, he absorbed the elements of the ideas of the common nobility into it. His most important theory was the equality of the nobility, according to which there is no juridistic difference between noblemen of the different noble classes, and basic noble rights should be the privilege of every nobleman, be he a lesser nobleman, common nobleman or a baron (this was the so-called primae nonus or una eademque nobilitas). He asserted this theory by historic precedents taken from John Turóczy's chronicle. His other important theory was the so-called Holy Crown Theory, which he developed from the doctrine of the crown - emerging from the 13th century - and the organic doctrine. He also emphasised the Hungarian king's right of grace. Although the Tripartitum never became a law book, its influence in modern Hungary could be compared only to that of the Bible. It was translated into several languages, including Hungarian, Croatian and German, so it became the means of the development of Hungarian literary and juristic language.

The Law Book of Újlak

The market town Újlak had once been in the possession of the Újlak family who originated from the county of Szerém. In 1524 it came under the direct authority of the king. The citizens of this prospering town - due to the fact that it was a place of pilgrimage because of John Kapisztrán's tomb - turned to the king himself and asked him to make Újlak a free royal town. First there were seven, then eight such free royal towns in Hungary. The king supported this idea and on 13 December, 1525 he issued the law book of Újlak (in the form of a codex bound in velvet), which adopted the law of Buda in many cases and these were translated into Latin. Even though the law book did not contain all the privileges of free royal towns, it encouraged the freedom and economic position of the citizens of Újlak. The law book is divided into 5 books, and the books into chapters. It is certainly a unique piece of the codificational activity of late medieval law, as it recorded the rights of towns. However, the citizens of Újlak hardly had chance to enjoy their privileges, as the following year they were forced to flee from the arms of Turkish conquerors.

Literacy was spreading and the demand for it also increased. An indication of this process was that more and more books of formulae were compiled, which were to summarise the rules of letter writing and provide examples for offices. John Magyi compiled a collection from the samples of the royal chancellery under the title of 'Stylus cancellariae' [The Style of the Chancellery]. At the same time the work of chapters and credible places was also made easier with the appearance of a collection of chapter letter samples, made after 1521, and the Somogyvár Book of Formulae, which was compiled between 1460-1480, probably by the secular clerk of the Benedictine convent of Somogyvár. The Franciscan book of formulae, compiled in the first decades of the 16th century, had a great influence, as it described the developing structure of the order, and showed the process how quickly the Observant Franciscans organised the crusade, which finally turned against their lords in 1514. Although these books of formulae preserved old, fixed forms, modern humanist ideas and Latin style began to spread in the royal chancellery.

Travel books

Descriptions of journeys have been a very popular genre of literature since ancient times. The oldest account by a Hungarian author and the last account of trips to the Holy Land (before the defeat at Mohács) was written in the decade preceding the catastrophe at Mohács. The author was an Observant Franciscan monk, Gabriel Pécsváradi, who went for a pilgrimage in 1514, and spent three years in a Franciscan monastery in Jerusalem, on mount Sion, before returning to Hungary. Being away on his journey he missed the events of the peasant's revolt in Hungary, which forced the members of the Franciscan order to come to a serious decision. After his return home he published a work in Vienna in 1519, in which he summarised his experiences in the Holy Land in Latin. This popular work, entitled 'A Short and Pleasant Description of the City of Jerusalem', provided the readers with important travel information, listed the sights and the possible periods of indulgence to be gained at shrines. The outstanding value of his work lay in the fact that he was a witness, and formed his opinion on the holy places from the point of view of a Hungarian.

Hungarian authors were the first to report on the internal conflicts of the Ottoman Empire. In Gabriel Pécsváradi's work we can read about sultan Selim I's campaign in 1516-1517, where he was an eye-witness. Brother George of Hungary - or as he was earlier known, the Anonym of Szászsebes - became very popular throughout Europe. As a student at the Dominicans of Szászsebes, the author was captured by the Turks in Transylvania in 1438, and set down in writing his memories and the experiences he gained throughout 20 years of captivity. He wrote his work, entitled 'Essay about the Traditions, Circumstances and Cruelties of the Turks' in Rome, in Latin. It was so popular that it was published seven times between 1480-1514, and was also translated into German, too. He gave a detailed description of the world of the conquering Ottomans and the miserable life of their prisoners. He was very objective, respecting and accepting the religious patience and humanity of the Muslims.

Theological Literature

The most original author of medieval Hungarian theological literature was Andreas Pannonius, a member of the Carthausian order of mute brethren. Although he spent his life in Italian monasteries, as one of the warriors of John Hunyadi he never lost his interest in his homeland. He dedicated one of his works to King Matthias. His most outstanding work was a commentary to the 'Song of Songs', which was written in 1460, but he continuously worked on it until his death. Within the boundaries of scholastic and mystic conceptions he created an original work of art, which brought great respect for Hungarian theological literature. Nicolaus de Mirabilibus was a member of the Dominican order, who also spent the major part of his life in Italy. However, from 1494 he became the superior of the Hungarian Dominican order. During his years in Italy, where he worked as a lecturer at university and as a preacher, he wrote an essay on conscience in Italian, then a Latin work on predestination. Both authors used enormous amount of theological source material for their works.


Preaching is a special genre of church literature: on one hand it spreads religion and teaches, and on the other hand it serves as the basis for the development of literature in the mother tongue. Collections appeared partly anonymously, partly with an indication of the names of the authors. Between 1456-1470 a priest from the region of Pécs compiled a collection entitled 'Sermones dominicales' [Sunday Preachings], which was based mainly on the preaching of Jacob Voragine. His work spread in manuscripts with Hungarian glossas. Compiling collections of sermons flourished and became significant throughout Europe among observant Franciscans in the second half of the 15th century. Pelbárt Temesvári collected his sermons for his colleagues in the order, and he planned his texts as drafts, not as speeches. He built up his preaching according to a scholastic logical order, and he supported his reasons with enormous quantities of quotations from church fathers and medieval experts. To capture the attention of the audience and illustrate the subject he used moral parables from his own life or other collections of parables.

Pelbárt Temesvári's young colleague was Osvát Laskai. He also published hundreds of sermons. In the prologue of his collection of sermons for Sundays he informed the readers that his aim was to help village priests and educate simple people. He emphasised the consciousness of the individual and his commitments to ideas. In contrast with Temesvári, his speeches were original owing to his sensitivity to social and national consciousness. He often criticised social groups that did not make any sacrifice to holy purposes, and he tried to protect the poor. As a new element of national consciousness, developing from the 13th century, he expanded the Hun-Hungarian identity to the whole nation, and declared that the Hungarian nation was the shield of Christian Europe. He drew attention to the Turkish threat and the internal, ethnic-religious divide of the country. He intended to strengthen the identity of the members of the order, when he undertook to continue the Franciscan chronicle and dealt with the heroic life of John Kapisztrán. The works of the two Franciscan authors were published in several editions, and had a major influence on Europe.


When John Kapisztrán died on 23 December, 1456 in the cell of the Franciscan monastery of market town Újlak in the Szerémség, an enormous crowd of people set out on a pilgrimage to his catafalque, and many more people came after the funeral. There were a lot of miraculous recoveries among people seeking a cure for their illnesses at the tomb of the Franciscan, who was regarded as a saint. The authorities of the town had these miracles recorded in minutes in 1460 with the intention of encouraging the canonisation of John Kapisztrán. The pilgrims attributed 389 recoveries and ten miraculous escapes from Turkish captivity to the honour and help of the saint Franciscan brother. Apart from the list of miracles at Újlak, Peter Soproni, a Franciscan monk, tried to summarise the miracles in connection with John Kapisztrán and Osvát Laskai wrote his biography. Laskai's work was lost, but Peter Soproni's work was published in print in 1523.

The relics of hermit St Paul of Téba, the patron saint of the Paulian order, were brought back to Budaszentlőrinc at the end of the 14th century, and consequently the central monastery of the Paulians also became a shrine. There were a lot of miracles among people who hoped for a recovery from the relics, and these miracles were collected and published in print by Valentine Hadnagy in Krakow in 1507. The well-known Paulian author also dealt with publishing the biography of hermit St Paul which was finally completed in 1511 in Venice. Late medieval hagiographic literature had a double aim: they wanted to emphasise Christian consciousness with the ideal of the hero saint, who had died in the struggle against the Turks, and through ancient Christian examples they wanted to strengthen monastic self analysis. For both purposes they used the most modern means to spread literature, that is by printing books. A collection, the aim of which was to publish the legends of Hungarian saints not included in the Legenda aurea ('Legenda sanctorum Hungariae') was published several times after the 1486 Strassbourgh edition.

Scientific and Educational Literature

The Archbishop of Esztergom, Ladislaus Szalkai, who came from a simple family, was one of the most educated prelates of his period, who also wrote poetry and sermons. He did not study at foreign universities, but in the Augustine school of Sárospatak. The memories of his student years at Sárospatak were the school notes of the late archbishop. Under the directorship of baccalaureus John Kisvárdai in 1489-1490 he recorded the only school book of music theory in medieval Hungary, which could have been used at any of the contemporary universities - as far as its quality was concerned. Besides music theory, the Szalkai codex contains notes about astronomy, church law and rhetoric, but these are less independent works. At the end of the 15th century in Germany George of Hungary - who gained a magister's degree at one of the universities - compiled a handbook of aritmethic. In his work he used money from around the Utrecht region, but in the appendix he also gave the rates of exchange of Hungarian money. His work was printed in 1499.


The appearance of humanism was strongly felt in the forms and content of poetry. Liturgical poetry was still popular, but the characteristic features of this genre were rather the Hungarian language and the following antique forms. The authors of liturgical poetry were, of course, monks, primarily Paulian monks. Anthony Tatai, the preacher of the Budaszentlőrinc monastery, who published a Paulian service book and a breviary containing the texts of the office in the 1470s, studied at the university of Vienna. His colleague in the order, Adalbert Csanádi, who was described in Gregor Gyöngyösi's history of the order as an outstanding preacher, wrote hymns about angels and angelic messages for feasts. Besides these he wrote the verse-prayer of the patron saint of the order, hermit St Paul in hexametric lines, under the influence of humanism. The accompanying hymns were written in Sapphic verses.

The St Ladislaus Song, written by an unknown author in late Gothic style, might have originated from the 1460/1470s. It had a very interesting content. The author added a new content to the hymnic form: in connection with the figure of Ladislaus he referred to the 'royal successor of the Huns', which must have reminded his contemporaries of Attila, the king of the Huns. It helped to spread the Hun-Hungarian identity, which can also be found in Osvát Laskai's sermons, and the works of John Turóczy and Stephen Werbőczy. Political aspects forced the author to use anachronistic elements. For example, the hero had to fight the Turks and Hussite heresy. So the hymn of the saint king became the tool of supporting king Matthias, but it did not influence the literary value of the work. Its Hungarian translation was a real artistic work itself. In spite of its weaknesses it proved that medieval Latin was the nurse of literature in the mother tongue.


The Preliminaries of the Appearance of Humanism in Hungary

At the turn of the 14-15th centuries a new late medieval movement appeared in Florence, the aim of which was to renew the Latin language - which had deteriorated in the Middle Ages - on the basis of newly discovered antique sources. This new movement also wanted to renew the whole culture and was initiated by Francesco Petrarc. This spiritual trend was called humanism (as it was created by the humanists) or renaissance (as its aim was to encourage the "rebirth of literature" [renascentes litterae]). It opened a new phase in European culture, having created the basis of modern education. It grew and developed in the 15th century in Italy, where the people considered themselves the real successors of ancient Rome and the Latin language. It also gained ground in other European countries in the 16th century, and as far as literature was concerned it encouraged the use of national vernaculars.

Hungary came into contact with the new culture relatively early, compared to other European countries. King Sigismund's Buda castle, (which was also an imperial residence) was frequently visited by outstanding humanists (for example, Francesco Filelfo, Ambrogio Travesari) as Italian ministers. Hungarian scholars were also able to get acquainted with humanist ideas and their representatives (for example, Poggio Bracciolini) at international forums, when they accompanied the king on his trips. The Hungarians who studied in Italy and the Italians who got their high social status from King Sigismund (such as Scolari of Florence) also had a great influence on Hungarian culture. The great humanist, Pier Paolo Vergerio, also played an important role in the transplantation of humanism. In his last years he had been one of the closest friends of János Vitéz.

John Vitéz, the "Father of Hungarian Humanism"

John Vitéz, who called himself Ioannes de Zredna because of his birthplace, started his career in King Sigismund's chancellery, then gradually rose to the peak of secular and ecclesiastical life in Hungary (becoming King Matthias's chief royal chancellor and the Archbishop of Esztergom). Although he had no formal education he educated himself throughout his life. His knowledge was outstanding in many respects and besides his literary duties, he dealt with astronomy and astrology, history, moral philosophy and philology. He corrected (emendated) his own Latin codices. He was a very close friend and colleague of the "apostle of Central-European humanism", Enea Silvio Piccolomini (later Pope Pius II). He took care of the education of the Hunyadi sons, and played a great role in making Matthias king of Hungary. However, later he led the plot against Matthias, and died in 1472.

He did not have any independent literary ambitions, the majority of his letters and his rhetoric speeches were made as a result of necessity concerning his political career. His Book of Letters was the first Hungarian scholarly work from the age of humanism. He wrote it in collaboration with Paul Ivanich. The most important topic of his rhetoric speeches (orations) was to encourage his audience to join forces against the Turks, which was also the greatest problem for his fellow humanists in Italy. This was supplemented with the description of the sufferings of the Hungarian people and their willingness to make sacrifices. He also asked for help from the peoples of Europe. In both genres of his writings he mixed medieval type rhetoric with humanist elements, such as adoptions and paraphrases from his earlier readings. In Hungary his works were considered as examples, but foreigners also respected them.

Feeling sorry for the lack of education among his fellow-citizens, János Vitéz took the responsibility to spread, organise and support humanist culture in Hungary. His bishopric library in Várad was often visited by foreigners, and he set up a humanist library in Esztergom, with which he set an example for King Matthias's library, Bibliotheca Corvina. He also supported the foundation of the first Hungarian book printing house, and established a university in Pozsony, called Universitas Histropolensis. He supported the foreign humanists - especially Italians - who were involved in writing and dedicated their works to him. He formed the precedents of Hungarian Humanist Academies in Várad, then Esztergom. He sent several talented young men to study in Italy, who received high positions back in Hungary with his help. Such persons were Peter Garázda and Ladislaus Vetési, and his famous nephew, Janus Pannonius.

Janus Pannonius

Janus Pannonius (his original name was János Chesmiczei) was the first outstanding figure in Hungarian literature, the founder of Hungarian secular poetry based on literary education, and the first great figure of European humanist poetry outside Italy. He was born to a noble family in 1434 in Chesmicze. He studied in Ferrara, in Guarino Veronese's school (1447-1454), at the expense of his famous uncle, János Vitéz. Later he studied law in Padua. After his return home (1458) he followed a successful career: he became the Bishop of Pécs, King Matthias's chief treasurer and the ban of Slavonia. When he was forced to flee - owing to the fact that he took part in the plot against the king - he fell ill and died in 1472 in Medvevár. He became famous for his translations of poems and prose from Greek into Latin and he was a significant representative of humanist letter writing.

During his school years in Ferrara Janus Pannonius was prominent in poetry and became famous in Italy; as he himself wrote he was "the first of Pannonia to be honoured". He wrote elegies and panegyricuses (cf. Claudius Claudianus), but his most famous works were his virtuosic epigrams. In his epigrams he imitated Martialis. His sources were his own experiences in connection with literature, poets, everyday life and his readings. The tone of his epigrams is either praising or satirical; he praised virtue, knowledge, the ability to create and great deeds, and he was satirical about human stupidity and dishonesty. His erotic epigrams, the majority of which are also satirical, are still very popular.

His most outstanding praising epigrams are the ones written about himself and his importance. He had great self-confidence, since he was aware of his own poetic values and greatness. He wrote excellent epigrams about his teacher, Guarino, whom he loved and adored very much, as if he were his own father. He began his Guarino panegyricus in Ferrara, in which he remembered him with great respect. In his erotic epigrams he made fun of the lascivious, perverted and sensual people of his neighbourhood. He wrote the poem About his Age (De aetate sua) when he was 16, in which he wrote about his experiences of becoming an adult man. He hardly ever praised women, hiding his romantic feelings, but his poem To Agnes (Ad Agnetem) is the first example of Hungarian individual love poetry.

He wrote only a few poems in Padua, but his longest poem was written there (Marcello panegyricus). In his Hungarian period his main genre was elegy, but he also wrote some epigrams. He described political and military events, and wrote about his solitude and anti-war feelings. The most significant poem of his Hungarian period is Farewell to Várad (Abiens valere iubet sanctos reges Waradini), in which he described the winter Hungarian landscape and the natural, cultural and spiritual values of Várad. In his elegy To Borbala's Death he wrote about his mother's death and his love and mourning. He often wrote about his own suffering. In the elegy When He Got Ill in the Camp (De se aegrotante in castris) he bid farewell to life and composed his own epitaph and poetic greatness.

In one of his last elegies, To His Own Soul (Ad animam suam) - in which he gives account of his Neoplatonic philosophical studies (cf. Marsilio Ficino) - we can find the motif of death and the disillusionment of mankind. In another one (The Flood; De inundatione) he had the apocalyptic vision of a flood, which would destroy the world. His other favourite allegory was the allegory of the tree, which appeared in his Hungarian poems Of a Trasdanubian Almond Tree (De amygdalo in Pannonia nata) and The Fruit Tree. The early blossoms of a fruit tree were frozen in the Pannonian winter, the other one is full of fruits, which are hit off by thick sticks rather than picked by hands.

King Matthias and Humanist Education

János Vitéz involved his student, King Matthias, in his organising activities, Italian connections and patronage. After putting down and recovering from the plot led by Vitéz, the king himself took charge of developing and controlling humanist culture in the country. King Matthias was very intelligent, he was quite familiar with humanist studies and certain sciences (such as astronomy and alchemy). His high level of education was praised by his contemporaries. The majority of letters composed in his name was written by Hungarian humanists in his chancellery, but he himself also composed and dictated letters. According to the aesthetic norms of humanist letter writing, his letters were purposeful, well-composed, clear and free from decorations, and they reflect Matthias' royal merits.

After marrying Beatrix of Aragon (in 1476) King Matthias started to realise his great plan, to "make Hungary a second Italy" (Bonfini). The royal court became the residence of Hungarian humanism, where foreign, mostly Italian scientists worked carrying out the king's wishes. Neoplatonism was the influential philosophy of the court, and owing to direct and close ties Matthias established a branch of the Florence Academy in Buda. Latin translations from Greek and Italian works praising King Matthias and his deeds, humanist dialogues (for example, Aurelio Brandolini Lippo's works) were written there. The most important result of literary and scientific work was the birth of modern Hungarian historiography.

The king entrusted Antonio Bonfini with recording Hungarian history from a humanist perspective. The historiographer adopted Thuróczy's chronicle supplemented with several documents and living traditions. He used witnesses and his own experiences as sources in describing the age. Events of Hungarian history were shown as part of universal history, using a lot of ancient sources. Until the 19th century information about the past of the Hungarian people originated from Bonfini's work, both in Hungary and abroad. Galeotto Marzio's booklet about Matthias was as popular as Bonfini's. He wrote down his experiences in regard to the king and his family, Hungarian traditions and culture and his Hungarian friends in anecdote-like short stories. One of his closest friends was Michael Báthory.

One of King Matthias's greatest achievements was the establishment of his famous library, the Bibliotheca Corvinian. It was one of the biggest secular libraries of the world at that time with its 2000-2500 books. Only the Vatican library was bigger in terms of the number of its books. As it was a humanist library - just like John Vitéz's earlier - it was very valuable. This means that the king collected ancient works of literature, that is all the translations from Greek and Latin including patristic literature. The library had very few printed books, it was more a collection of precious codices. These were copied or checked by scientist who spoke Greek and Latin, and were then decorated by the finest Italian and Hungarian book painters. Finally, the specially decorated bounds and plates were made by outstanding masters. Today only 216 original corvinas are known from this great library.

Humanist Literature from the Jagello age

After the death of King Matthias nobody continued his great deeds and initiatives. The majority of the Italians moved away from the court. Their places were occupied by the Czechs and Moravians who supported King Ulaslo II, and people from Vienna, with whom relations became closer. The thing which most attracted the humanists was still the Corvina library. Although the number of books did not increase (the 150 codices which were ordered by King Matthias from Vespasiano da Bisticci's Florence workshop did not arrive in Hungary), many codices were lent or even given away, the uniqueness and richness of the library - for example, the priceless Greek and Latin codices - was unrivalled in Europe, and it was an extraordinary place for literary and scientific work.

During Ulaslo II's reign the leaders of court humanism were the Czech and Moravian humanists. They worked in the royal chancellery in Buda, and also oriented towards Vienna, which became another famous humanist centre alongside Italy. Their leaders were two outstanding European humanists: Augustinus Moravus from Olomouc and Bohuslav Hasistejnsky z Lobkoovic, the greatest Czech humanist poet. The first great German humanist poet, Konrad Celtis, based his academy, the Danubian Scientific Association (Sodalitas Litteraria Danubiana) - the centre of which was in Vienna - on foreign humanists living in Hungary. Its members were Central-European humanists. They chose John Vitéz Jnr., the Bishop of Veszprém, to be their president, and members from Buda were able to hold their meetings as an individual group (contubernium) as well.

The ideas and works of Erasmus of Roterodamus began to spread in Hungary towards the end of King Louis II's reign (1516-1526) and they also gained the approval of the royal couple. Humanist culture reached the outer circles of society, too, such as the lower priests and citizens of towns. The leaders of humanist education and the disseminators of this modern culture were members of the Hungarian church elite. Though they could not compete with the Bishop of Eger, Hippolit Estei (Ippolito d'Este), Hungarian prelates (for example, George Szatmári, Francis Várdai) also collected and read the books of ancient and humanist authors and (George Handó founded a humanist library in Pécs), and supported talented young people in their studies and surrounded themselves with humanist writers.

In the Jagello age the main interest and the aim of the activities of the Hungarian humanists was to collect, publish and evaluate the manuscript of Janus Pannonius's works. Foreign scholars also took part in the Janus philology, partly because of their Hungarian students and supporters, and partly because of the poet's international fame and greatness. From among the Hungarians poets, especially Sebastian Magyi and Adrian Wolphardus helped the publishing of Janus's works. They considered Janus their model, and spread national self-confidence and pride through his works. The most outstanding Hungarian philologist of the age was Matthaeus Fortunatus, who published a Seneca edition which became famous throughout Europe (1523).

The most important part of literature was poetry, and Hungarian authors introduced new genres in it. The poet Jacobus Piso was highly respected by his contemporaries, and was Erasmus's first Hungarian friend. Stephanus Taurinus wrote an epic poem on a Hungarian topic, remembering the Dózsa peasant revolt of 1514 in his poem Stauromachia. This had a great influence on Martin Nagyszombati, who encouraged Hungarian noblemen to unite and defend themselves against the Turks in his poem To the Hungarian Noblemen (Ad regni Hungariae proceres), which was written after the defeat at Nándorfehérvár (1521). Valentine Hagymási was also a talented poet, whose poem praising the beauty and richness of Hungary is worth mentioning besides his classic, frequently quoted 'declamatio', The Praise and Reproval of Wine and Water (De laudibus et vituperio vini et aquae).

Bartholomeus Francofordinus Pannonius was a talented poet, who introduced humanist comedy with his writing The Cricket (Gryllus). In regard to Jagello age prose the most popular genre was the humanist letter; and the most well-known author of this genre was Peter Váradi, who collected his letters written between 1490-1497 in a book called Letterbook. The above mentioned works are not outstanding ones, but they show that the demand for Latin humanist literature increased significantly in Hungary. This process - and also philology, which drew people's attention to their mother tongue - created the circumstances among which Hungarian renaissance literature could be born.

Back to the top of this page